Famous People from the Isle of Ely

Hereward of the Fens (The Wake) (11th century)

Leader (1070-71) of a revolt against William the Conqueror. Possibly the tenant of the abbey of Peterborough. Hereward and his followers sacked the abbey, perhaps in protest against the appointment of a Norman abbot. He fled to the Isle of Ely, and a band of other refugees, including Morcar, gathered round him. In 1071 King William beseiged the Isle, but Hereward escaped. His later life is obscure, but he may have been reconciled to William. He became the subject of many legends and is the hero of Charles Kingsley's last completed novel, Hereward the Wake (1866).

Matthew Paris, in his "Chronica Majors" compiled in the 13th century, made many references to the Fens, including the following statement: "AD 1071. The Earls Edwin, Morcar and Siward with Egelwin, Bishop of Durham, associated themselves with many thousand disaffected persons and rebels against William the First. At first they betake themselves to the forst and the waste plains; then they do what mischief they can to the KIng's property in various places, and finally seek a place of refuge in the Isle of Ely. There, under the leadership of Hereward the Wake, they make frequent sallies and do much damage.... The King, coming against them, surrounds the Isle with his forces, makes roads and bridges, renders the deep swamps passable for man and beast and builds the castle at Wisbech".

A lot has been written about Hereward the Wake, the Saxon patriot. There have been many novels written by eminent writers which fire the imagination but the mixture of fact and fiction have done much to undermine the hero through the creation of myths. There is sufficient evidence written by Church scholars to prove that Hereward did exist and that the Isle of Ely was the area where he enacted his inspiring achievements against a more numerical and formidable enemy. Accounts can be found in the monastic manuscript "De Gestis Herwardi Saxonis" outlining events in the epic siege and tell a great deal more about the outstanding Englishman, Hereward, and his adventures abroad; the account was written by a reputable monk-historian and is based for the most part on the knowledge of men then living, namel Hereward's colleagues-at-arms.

The name "Wake" is not to be based on myth but the fact that Hereward was part of the Wake family, the best account of which, down to 1350, can be found in the Complete Peerage, New Edition, vol. XII, part 2, pages 259-304.

The documentation accounts for Herward's birth and his life until his death. His father was Leofric of Bourne, grandson of Earl Radulf (surname Scabre); his mother was Aediva, great-great-granddaughter of Duke Oslac. As a youth he became an accomplished, courageous, fighter but was renowned for stirring up sedition and tumult among the people. His father requested that King Edward banish Hereward, which he did. This gained Hereward the name Outlaw; he was aged 18.

Hereward travelled far and wide, establishing himself as a formidable leader and warrior. He went north beyond Northumberland, down to Cornwall, across to Ireland, to Flanders, all the time building a remarkable reputation. On his return to England he found his father dead and his brother slain by the Normans. Hereward sought revenge and so started the revolt in the Fens under his leadership. Hereward is said to have married a Saxon noble woman, Turfrida.

To learn more about Hereward, and the monk-historians accounts of him a book has been compiled by Trevor Bevis, entitled "Hereward of the Fens", published by Trevor Bevis, ISBN 0 901680 43 5.


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